Symphony Notes for Week Seven

“Trittico botticelliano”

Ottorino Respighi

Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was born on July 9, 1879, in Bologna and died on April 18, 1936, in Rome. Although he contributed to the repertoire of opera, song and chamber music, he is best known throughout the world for his opulent orchestral music. Respighi held important teaching and administrative posts in his native Italy, but he preferred composing to the execution of these duties. His “Trittico botticelliano” (“Three Botticelli Pictures”) was composed in 1927 and received its first performance at Vienna’s Konzerthaus on Sept. 27, 1927, with the composer conducting. It owes its existence to the generosity of the American patron, Elinor Sprague Coolidge. The work is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, glockenspiel, triangle, harp, piano, celesta and strings.

Ottorino Respighi was a composer who had a love affair with his native country and its cultural and artistic history. The best-known examples of this may be found in his three tributes to Rome — “The Pines of Rome,” “The Fountains of Rome” and “Roman Festivals.” Also popular are his colorful “Gli Uccelli” (“The Birds”) and suites of “Ancient Airs and Dances,” works that extend his reach back to the past not only from Italian sources, but also French music (Jean-Philippe Rameau) of the 17th and 18th centuries. Chautauquans who were here in early July were treated to Respighi’s opulent orchestration of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 operatic masterpiece, L’Orfeo, a work that had newly been edited and published in 1930 by Respighi’s contemporary, Gian Francesco Malipiero. It was this music of the past and his flair for brilliant orchestration that inspired Respighi to create these beloved compositions.

The “Trittico botticelliano” was inspired by paintings by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510) housed in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. The three paintings are “La Primavera” (“Spring”), “L’Adorazione dei Magi” (“Adoration of the Magi”) and “La nascita di Venere” (“The Birth of Venus”). The middle movement uses the well-known Advent/Christmas tune, “Veni Emmanuel” (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”). The first piece in the triptych, “Spring,” brims with exuberance and sparkle. After opening with a splash of color, the solo bassoon presents a gay dance, picked up by the rest of the orchestra. The woodwinds then present a jaunty tune, reminiscent of dance music from the Renaissance era. The centerpiece, “Adoration of the Magi,” again places the bassoon in the spotlight with an expressive solo that turns into a duet with the oboe. A more exotic tone is ushered in by the flute, which then joins the bassoon in the presentation of the “Veni Emmanuel” tune. Even greater exoticism marks the approach of Three Kings of the Orient — Magi — with colorful jangling coming from the percussion and piano. The bassoon and oboe then sing a kind of song of worship. The movement ends as it begins, with the expressive bassoon solo.

The final movement is a musical representation of Botticelli’s best-known painting, “The Birth of Venus” (sometimes affectionately called “Venus on the Half Shell”). Here all is gentleness as the waves that bring the goddess to the shore are given sweet musical expression in the violins.

Concerto in C major for cello and orchestra, Hob. VIIb:1

Joseph Haydn

(Franz) Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, Lower Austria on March 31, 1732, and died in Vienna on May 31, 1809. His long and productive career spanned the end of the Baroque era to the onset of the Romantic. Famed for his incomparable contribution to the development of the symphony and string quartet, Haydn composed an enormous amount of music in other genres, including sacred choral music. His Concerto in C major for cello and orchestra is dated from somewhere between 1761-5, a period near the beginning of Haydn’s employment as vice-kapellmeister by the Hungarian Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy (succeeded by his brother, Nicolaus).

The orchestra over which Haydn enjoyed directorship during his early years in the employ of the wealthy Esterhazy family numbered approximately 15 musicians. The small number, however, was more than compensated for by the expertise and virtuosity of the musicians, among whom were the cellists Joseph Weigl and Anton Kraft. Haydn reveled in writing virtuosic solo (concertare) passages in his early symphonies for these musicians, and it is likely that his two concertos for cello and orchestra were composed for one or both of these virtuosi. This work, as well as a handful of other concertos from this period, no doubt were meant to ingratiate the young composer and vice-kapellmeister (in 1766 Haydn assumed the role of kapellmeister, a title he retained until his death) to his fellow musicians.

Scholars knew of the existence of this concerto from a draft catalogue made by Haydn himself in 1765, but as was the case with much music from the 18th century, this concerto was believed to have been lost forever, until a copy of it (not in Haydn’s hand) was happily discovered in 1961 by musicologist Oldřich Pulkert at the Prague National Museum. Its authenticity was at first doubted, but scholars now agree that the work is truly by Haydn. The work has become a favorite of cellists ever since its premiere performance by Miloš Sádlo and the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, on May 19, 1962.

The work is in the traditional three movements. The first movement, Moderato, reflects the elegance of the so-called Rococo style. Its tendency to dwell on the opening thematic idea betrays its Baroque heritage, but its working out shows that Haydn was up to date in his handling of the emerging Classical style. The second movement is a lyrical Adagio and the finale is a highly energetic and virtuosic Allegro molto cast in sonata form, as opposed to the more common rondo structure found in last movement of most 18th-century concertos.

Symphonic Dances, op. 45

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Oneg, Novgorod, on March 20/April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943*. Famed as both pianist and composer, Rachmaninoff left Russia after the Revolution of 1917, eventually taking up residence in the United States. His “Symphonic Dances” was written in 1940 and marks his final composition. It received its premiere on Jan. 3, 1941, with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. The work is dedicated to these musicians. The work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, side drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, harp, piano and strings.

*Note: The variation of dates reflect the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

The Russian-born pianist and composer Rachmaninoff falls into the tradition of the great performer-composers of the Romantic style that began with figures such as Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt. Like his great predecessors when at their best, his music avoids the self-indulgent kind of virtuosity-for-its-own-sake practiced by less gifted musicians. His music often is quite sentimental, but his melodic gifts were more than sufficient to prevent it from becoming maudlin. In his “Symphonic Dances,” however, the composer abandoned his earlier style in favor of a leaner, more angular (dare one say modern?) idiom. Had he lived longer, who knows where this new style might have led him.

Rachmaninoff composed the “Symphonic Dances” while living at the Honeyman Estate in Centerport, Long Island. His original title for this three-movement suite was “Fantastic Dances,” with movement titles of “Noon,” “Twilight” and “Midnight.” As the title of the work implies, the composer considered this music suitable for ballet. He hoped that the famous choreographer Fokine would take an interest in it, as he had done with the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” for piano and orchestra, but the project came to naught. A simultaneously composed version for two pianos also exists, having been performed by the composer and Vladimir Horowitz at a private party in August 1942. The orchestral version has become Rachmaninoff’s testament — a work that spans his entire life’s work.

An example of this lies in the energetic first dance, marked enigmatically “Non allegro,” where he quotes, at the end, the opening theme of his First Symphony (1897), which in turn was derived from motifs characteristic of Russian church music. There is a double sense of nostalgia here as Rachmaninoff spent much of his time after 1918 away from his native Russia. Also, when first performed, his Symphony No. 1 was a flop. An interesting feature of this movement is his prominent writing for the saxophone, an instrument that rarely was to be found in a symphony orchestra (his compatriot, Sergei Prokofiev, also used the saxophone in some of his works). Encouragement to do so came from the composer/arranger Robert Russell Bennett. The movement is in three clearly delineated sections, the middle part being lyrical, and the last part returning to the theme and mood of the opening.

After its harsh opening in the brass, the second movement, Andante con moto. Tempo di valse, morphs into a curious waltz (in 6/8 time), whose material is a transformation of ideas from the first movement. Colorful writing for the winds punctuate the brass chords, followed by a melancholic tune sung by the English horn and strings that becomes more agitated as it moves toward its conclusion. The movement is peppered with sliding chromatic scales and chord progressions that give the music a restless feeling of unease. The listener would be forgiven if Maurice Ravel’s evocative choreographic poem, “La valse,” comes to mind.

The final dance is alternates between two tempi (Lento assai and Allegro vivace) and depicts a struggle between Death, represented by the Western Gregorian chant from the Mass for the dead, the “Dies Irae,” and Resurrection, represented by a quotation from the ninth movement of Rachmaninoff’s Russian Orthodox a cappella choral work of 1915, “All-Night Vigil.” The latter citation is marked in the score with the word “Alliluya.” The “Dies Irae” tune was used many times in the concert repertory, including Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” Liszt’s “Totentanz” and other examples by Rachmaninoff himself (“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”). The text of the Russian chant reads “Blessed be the Lord” (“Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi”). By setting Western and Eastern chants in apposition and opposition, Rachmaninoff may be interpreted as translating the dual “citizenship” of his own career into musical terms. The composer is quoted as having stated somewhat prophetically about his “Symphonic Dances”: “It must have been my last spark.” That the Russian Resurrection hymn proves triumphant may also be interpreted as Rachmaninoff’s personal wish that his legacy would be redeemed, as much as a hope for his own resurrection after his death. He needn’t have worried. His music plays on.

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He will present a pre-concert lecture on Tuesday’s program at 6:45 p.m. in the Hurlbut Church sanctuary.

Tags : Concerto in C major for cello and orchestraJoseph HaydnmusicOttorino RespighiSergei RachmaninoffSymphonic Dancessymphony notesThe ArtsTrittico botticelliano
David Levy

The author David Levy